Mary Marlowe (Mary Pickford) is a child of privilege, daughter of a wealthy New England banker. She has been pledged by her father into marriage with Lord Hurley, an effete British aristocrat. However, she's in love with John Carlton (Leslie Howard), a clerk at her father's bank. Her father William (C. Aubrey Smith) finds out about this and not only fires John, but says he'll prevent John from getting a decent job anywhere in New England. Meanwhile, Mary's marriage to Lord Hurley will take place in two days.
John and Mary elect to elope. They head out to California and raise cattle. They get rich, and John becomes a prominent man in the new state of California, eventually running for public office. However, John has a wandering eye, and his affairs threaten both their marriage and his political career.
- Call-Back: The radio in the car at the end plays "Oh, Susanna!", which the pioneers in John and Mary's wagon train sang some fifty years before. The final shot is Mary snuggling up to John in the car, followed by a brief clip of the shot of John and Mary in their pioneer wagon.
- Death Glare: Mary shoots a brief but intense one at John after John's lover Lolita shows up at a fancy dress ball being hosted by the Carltons.
- Death of a Child: John and Mary's baby dies of a fever as the house is besieged by cattle rustlers.
- Distant Finale: A coda has the story leap forward some forty-odd years, from 1888 to 1933 or close to it, showing an elderly John and Mary leaving Washington, DC, upon John's retirement after thirty years as a U.S. Senator.
- Elopement: Her father's class snobbery forces Mary to run off with John.
- Enemy Eats Your Lunch: Jake Houser and his goons steal John's cattle, but not before barging into the house and demanding at the point of a gun that Mary fix them lunch. It's that, rather than the loss of the cattle, that spurs John to raise a posse and come after them.
- Enter Stage Window: John climbs a ladder up to Mary's room and then comes in through the window that he's going to California to make a new life.
- Establishing Character Moment: How to demonstrate that Jake Houser the cattle rustler is really really evil? Have him point a gun at a baby while demanding food.
- Exact Words: When her father demands she leave her room and come back to the engagement party, Mary says "I'll be out of here in ten minutes." It's true, as she immediately elopes with John.
- Fainting: Mary fakes this to escape the engagement party.
- Have a Gay Old Time: When John climbs up to Mary's window during the engagement party, he says "Do you expect me to stand outside windows all my life watching British lords make love to you?"
- High-Class Glass: Helps to establish Lord Hurley as an effete aristocrat.
- Kirk's Rock: Thirty years before Star Trek, John and his ranch hand are riding through the Vasquez Rocks formation when they see Houser headed the other way with John's cattle.
- Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: It can't be a coincidence that, for their confrontation at the ball, sweet and nurturing wife Mary is wearing a white dress, while John's fiery mistress Lolita is wearing a dark (red? It's a black-and-white movie) one.
- No Peripheral Vision: With her father hammering on the door, Mary hurriedly throws her dress down on the floor (it's a huge 19th century formal dress) for John to hide under. William enters the room, sees the dress on the floor, picks it up, and scolds Mary for not taking care of her dress, while John's legs are in plain view at his feet.
- The Rustler: Jake Houser, a super-evil cattle rustler who becomes the antagonist in the second act, attacking the Carlton ranch.
- Sexy Backless Outfit: How John's mistress, the sexy Lolita, is dressed for the ball.
- Three-Act Structure: Three largely self-contained acts in different locations. Act I is John and Mary falling in love in New England and eloping. Act II is their life as pioneer ranchers somewhere in California, confronting violent cattle rustlers. Act III finds them living in a mansion with John campaigning for governor, only to have his mistress pop up.
- Title Drop: While telling their children that they want some time alone in their old age, John and Mary explain that there are certain "secrets" between every married couple that only they know.
- Verbal Irony: "She's the weakest and most obedient of women," says William, at the very moment his daughter is eloping out the front gate.
- Your Cheating Heart: John has a series of affairs after rising to prominence in California.